Global Track is our weekly street art column by Rhiannon Platt.

I first went to Baltimore two years ago on Easter. Mothers and daughters were out in their Sunday best walking past Freddy Sam’s mural. The mother asked her daughter what she thought the artist was painting, as the work was still in progress. Without realizing that the artist was working next to her, she replied, “hopefully something better than what’s there now.”

These simple words underscore the core mission of Open Walls Baltimore, the street art festival now in its second year, which runs through May 30. In a town with numerous vacant or slumlord-owned spaces, co-founders Gaia and Nanook aim to give the city something that looks better "than what's there now."

Ozmo with Nanook / Image via Rhiannon Platt

Ozmo / Image via Rhiannon Platt

At another point, someone drove by Ozmo’s wall and stopped to talk with him. When asked how long he had been painting, the artist replied with a straight face, “This is my first wall. No, really, I began painting hundreds of years ago in the caves, and here I am today.” Once the questions were directed at the subject matter rather than the creator, Ozmo delved into the historical representation of black figures throughout the history of painting. Rather than choosing an iconic image of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela, Ozmo instead chose to depict one of the first-ever images of a black man—a Flemish painting of a black military leader. In doing so, he illuminated an overlooked part of history rather than using an easily recognizable figure. This is the magic of Open Walls—making a conscious effort to tell stories that need to be told.

Escif / Image via Rhiannon Platt

When discussing the festival, one particular artist who sparks debate is Escif, who chose to paint an enlarged smiley face accompanied by the text “LOOKS MUCH BETTER NOW!” When curator Gaia explainS the meaning behind the simple juxtaposition of popular imagery and text, he echoes a sentiment similar to that of the girl commenting on Freddy Sam’s work in progress—by placing light-hearted works among abandoned spaces and unpainted facades, he is improving the surroundings. When discussing Escif’s Open Walls mural with other artists, there are critiques about the accompanying text, as if the artist is saying that the city should be honored to see his creation. However, with all of the art school debate aside, the important reaction is that of the Baltimore community, who responds with happiness and can see the large smiley face for several blocks.

Gaia / Image via Rhiannon Platt

While visiting the murals in Station North (Baltimore's arts and entertainment district), I had a chance to directly engage with community members about the project. A neighbor approached me asking if I was photographing the “graffiti walls,” to which I replied, "Yes." The man told me to follow him, saying I had to see one piece in particular. Although we were standing within blocks of several "Open Walls," he took me to Gaia’s mural, which inaugurated the 2014 festival, telling me it was his favorite. Typical of the artist, the mural is layered with classical and the contemporary metaphors—he painted a Baltimore resident and his friend alongside a Bierstadt landscape. Despite all of the coded references, it is important to note that the work still appeals to the wider public. 

Jaz / Image via Rhiannon Platt

Station North has seen two years pass since the inception of Open Walls. In this time, walls have sprung up in the empty lot adjacent to Momo’s wall, while the space in front of jungle cats became a garden. The city has not only physically grown around the project, but the citizens of Baltimore have, as well. During Ozmo’s project, several passersby not only asked what he was doing, but instead they asked if the Italian artist was part of the mural project. For a city that until recently was not known for its public art, Gaia and Nanook have made muralism a recognizable part of daily life in Station North.

Santtu Mustonen detail / Image via Rhiannon Platt